Jo Ellis is happy a lawyer helped her straighten out a problem with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA). Otherwise, she says, she wouldn’t have gotten the money she was owed for being put out of her apartment.
Ellis, 53, is a housecleaner who lives at Olympic West, a 75-unit high-rise that the housing authority operates for low-income residents on Queen Anne Hill. The building is one of 14 high-rises that SHA is renovating and, off and on, the agency has put Ellis in a hotel for a couple of nights at a time to keep her, and her emphysema, away from paint fumes.
Since July, when the work started, that’s totaled 12 overnights away from home. Each time, Ellis says, she has had to borrow money to eat out and sometimes could only afford one meal a day.
Then another tenant told her that every time she loses the use of her apartment, the housing authority is supposed to give her $9 for breakfast, $12 for lunch, and $20 for dinner.
It’s part of a construction agreement, she learned, that the housing authority signed with residents last November before SHA started HomeWorks, a $39 million program that will rehabilitate a total of 22 buildings. But Ellis says that asking SHA to reimburse her for the days she had to be out of her unit didn’t do any good, so she contaced the volunteer lawyer who helped the housing authority’s Resident Action Council negotiate the agreement.
“It was horrible. We were begging,” Ellis says of herself and a neighbor.
After the lawyer contacted SHA, the HomeWorks program mailed Ellis a check for $103. Rick Harrison, a member of the Resident Action Council, which represents the tenants in SHA’s high-rises, says it’s not the first time the housing authority hasn’t lived up to the agreement, but the incidents are typically so small — such as shutting off water or electricity at a different time than shown on a notice — that SHA knows it can get away with it.
“They’re not sticking to the things they agreed to,” Harrison says.
SHA communications chief Virginia Felton and Sven Koehler, the agency’s resident liaison for HomeWorks, disagree, saying that Ellis, her neighbor, and a tenant in another building where a construction worker cut through the kitchen counter earlier this year are the only complaints that have been remotely contentious.
“We’ve dealt with about 1,500 tenants in this situation,” Felton says, and “there have been almost no issues with it.”
Any problems have been addressed by Koehler or through the HomeWorks Resident Advisory Committee, a group created by the agreement, which also stipulated that tenants would have a construction hotline to call and a set of protocols that SHA would follow, such as providing adequate notice and meal money — usually in the form of grocery-store gift cards that could be used at a deli.
Harrison and others pushed for the agreement to curb the annoyances that tenants had experienced in other SHA rehabs. But Felton says the agreement dictates nothing — any tenant accommodations are up to the housing authority, which meets with every tenant prior to the start of construction to find out what their needs are.
“Basically, [it] isn’t, ‘If you’re in the HomeWorks project, you’re entitled to X,’” Felton says. “It depends on the work going on in the building and the degree to which that work is inconvenient or dangerous for people to be there.”
Between the reimbursement check and gifts cards, she says, Ellis has received a total of $321 in meal money. But she wasn’t given meal cards early on, Koehler says, because she chose to stay in a downtown hotel with no cooking facilities. Her other choice was an extended-stay hotel that had a kitchenette.
“My feeling is that we offered the equivalent of what she had [at her apartment] and she declined that, so we didn’t offer her the additional funds,” Koehler says. “Frankly, I’m trying to make sure we have enough money to go around for everyone and treat everyone equitably.”
Harrison says SHA should provide the meal cards regardless. “The excuse is that you’re being moved to a hotel with a kitchenette,” he says. “But are you going to move all your pots and pans and ingredients, too? That just isn’t practical.”
Eric Dunn, an attorney who represents SHA residents on other issues, says he has heard from tenants whose water or electricity is shut off prior to the time stated on a notice — something the HomeWorks agreement sought to avoid.
Koehler says he believes that SHA’s contractors have stuck to their notice times, but Dunn says tenants sometimes have to forgo a taking a shower or cooking a meal, which is costly for a low-income tenant to have to buy.
“It’s a disparate collection of minor indignities that adds up over time,” Dunn says, but little can be done about it.
“Picture yourself going into a courtroom and saying the court needs to act because SHA turned off the water 45 minutes before they said they would,” he says. “That doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it is.”